Milk, yogurt and cheese have long been essentials in the diets of Americans. June is National Dairy Month (celebrated since 1937), a time to celebrate and honor the many contributions the dairy industry has made to the world, one key area being sustainability. The U.S. dairy industry has worked hard to successfully reduce its overall carbon footprint by more than 63% since 1944, and continues to work hard to develop best practices in sustainability.

As our culture moves toward more sustainable lifestyles, there’s a stronger realization that today’s generation holds the key to tomorrow’s world. Recycling is one of the easiest ways for Americans to be green, making it a gateway to adopting other sustainable behaviors. As we celebrate National Dairy Month, let us reflect on the importance of instilling the lifelong habit of recycling in our children, and the role that school recycling plays in establishing recycling behavior.

Cartons, which are made mainly from paper and come in two main types — gable-top (or refrigerated) and aseptic (or shelf-stable) — have long been used as a packaging solution for milk and other dairy products. As a recyclable material, the Carton Council, a group of carton manufacturers united to deliver long-term collaborative solutions in order to divert valuable cartons from the landfill, has worked hard to increase access nationwide for cartons to be recycled. As a result, cartons can now be recycled by almost half of all U.S. households, which include 46 states and 73 of the top 100 U.S. communities.

Turning cartons into notebooks

In schools, particularly elementary schools, cartons are quite prevalent and can account for a large percentage of the cafeteria waste that is produced on a daily basis. In fact, the average U.S. school uses almost 75,000 cartons every year. Over five years, an average elementary school of 400 students can save the equivalent of almost 1,500 reams of paper, 72 trees and 28,848 gallons of water — just by recycling cartons. By recycling cartons, less waste is sent to landfills and instead valuable material is remanufactured into paper products such as writing paper and tissues, as well as building materials like ceiling tiles and backerboard.

Schools all over the country are making strides to implement carton recycling programs. Not only can carton recycling help schools by saving on costs — creating another learning opportunity and fostering a clean and positive environment — it also helps the dairy and packaging producers to ensure their products are getting recycled.

One example of a successful school recycling program is Kodak Park Elementary School in Rochester, N.Y. Kodak Park started a recycling program in 2012 after it saw success with other green programs the school had implemented. After winning the school carton recycling award category in Keep America Beautiful’s Recycle-Bowl competition in 2013, they decided to ramp up their efforts even more. They were awarded first place again in 2014 when they won for recycling the most milk and juice cartons per capita.

Habits learned in childhood

 Along with the environmental benefits, carton recycling helps establish a lifelong behavior of recycling in children. Children who recycle at school are more likely to replicate these behaviors at home and also to share the experience with their family and maybe even neighbors. By harnessing the power of our youth, we can help to implement lifelong recycling habits in our children and ultimately make the world a better, greener place.